America’s College Promise – Promising for Adults?


The President’s new plan for free community college—dubbed “America’s College Promise”—has generated a flurry of commentary within and outside of higher education circles. The administration’s proposal aims to make “two years of college as free and universal as high school,” by waiving tuition for any student enrolled in a community college at least half-time, who maintains a minimum 2.5 GPA, and is making steady progress towards completing their program. On the institutional side, the plan will only apply to “high-quality” programs, that is, those which provide academic programs that fully transfer to four-year institutions or occupational training programs with high graduation rates that offer degrees and certificates valued by employers. The federal government would fund 75 percent of program costs, with states chipping in the remaining 25 percent.

Since President Obama unveiled the plan in early January, and highlighted it in last week’s State of the Union address, opinions and analyses have been flying. Some have been quick to point out that the proposal—and its estimated six billion dollar per year price tag—stands little chance of passing through Congress, while others have questioned the wisdom of allocating funds for tuition rather than investing in improvements to the community college system itself. Nonetheless, fairly widespread agreement has emerged that the proposal has launched an overdue national conversation about the importance of higher education generally and community colleges in particular.

Though many of the proposal’s details remain vague, there are some important implications for adult learners. First and foremost, adults are explicitly included in the proposal. Though the program is modeled on the Tennessee Promise initiative which provides two years of community college tuition for the state’s high school seniors, the Obama proposal is not limited to those just out of high school. According to the New America Foundation’s Rachel Fishman, this would be the first program of its kind to include adult learners. Moreover, the program would include those pursuing certificates or job training—many of whom are adults—not just students working towards associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) issued a response to the proposal, praising the attention it focuses on the “economic necessity of schooling beyond high school.” CCRC also lauded the plan’s “first dollar in” structure, which would allow students to use other grants on top of the free tuition to cover additional costs such as books and transportation. However, CCRC identified four key issues with the plan: the need for more comprehensive reforms to support students within programs, such as alignment of courses to job and transfer requirements; the lack of a corresponding investment in community colleges so they can implement these reforms; an increased financial burden on states from tuition assistance, which might decrease overall resources available to institutions; and uncertainty around how the federal government will designate “effective” programs.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) also released a statement applauding the proposal as an important step in supporting the large numbers of adults who rely on community colleges to complete postsecondary credentials which boost their employability. Yet CAEL went on to express concern at the half-time attendance eligibility stipulation, which could be problematic for adult students juggling work and family responsibilities. Meanwhile, the response from community colleges has been largely enthusiastic, with system leaders and organizations such as the American Association of Community Colleges expressing optimism and excitement about the proposal.

While the future of “free community college” remains uncertain, America’s College Promise made a significant step in nationally recognizing the importance of adult learners alongside their younger peers. Regardless of how the initiative fares on the national stage, hopefully this expanded view of our nation’s college-going population is here to stay. 


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